Commentary by Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
Jesus was not speaking in the abstract. His listeners would immediately identify who the son was who said Yes and then did not go: it was most of themselves! – particularly the Pharisees. They were the people of the Covenant who had said Yes to God. The son who said No stood for the Gentiles, and also for outcasts such as tax-collectors and prostitutes. But the point of the parable was to blow away that clear distinction. What counts, he said, is not whether you say Yes or No, but what you do. It was his consistent teaching. Another time he said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21); and “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt 12:50). The tax-collector in the Temple went home “at rights with God,” while the Pharisee did not (Lk 18:14).
It is very upsetting to have the lines of demarcation moved. Someone once said that Jesus was the greatest disturber the world has known! He was a disturber of the peace, and still is. Wherever there is a wrong kind of peace he disturbs it. If he is called Prince of Peace it is not because he helps us relax with our complacent map of the world – in which the ‘right people’ are clearly distinguished from the ‘wrong people’ – but because he brings “a peace the world cannot give.”
We need not imagine that Jesus would leave us in peace if he walked our streets again. In the Church we regularly settle for a peace that the world can give: clear distinctions between insiders and outsiders, with a condescending attitude to people of other beliefs; and within the Church a culture of preferment and privilege and honours, which defies the Gospel by saying, in effect, “The first shall be first and the last shall be last.” “How very many sheep there are outside the Church,” St Augustine wrote, “and how very many wolves within!”
But everything comes back to one’s own Yes or No. In the light of this reading, Yes and No are not words we say but things we do. A Yes that is said but not done is only an evasion. This Faith was made for walking.